Mystery shopping in Amsterdam
Steve and I were in Amsterdam on business last week, but managed to cram in a quick ‘mystery shopper’ tour of a few of the city’s better chocolate shops, having worked up a chocolate appetite walking round the endless canals and after spending a quick hour in the Van Gogh museum.
Amsterdam doesn’t have the best reputation for chocolatiers, despite some historical chocolate connections and the city’s place as a centre for the cocoa trade and refining. A few names stood out though, so we decided to check out well established companies Puccini and Australian Homemade and newcomer Unlimited Delicious.
Size seems to matter in Amsterdam. Maybe it’s the desire to consumer large chocolate brownies in all those ‘coffee shops’ – both Puccini and Australian Homemade served up ‘super-size’ offerings, which is never a good sign. Puccini took this to extremes. The shop almost felt like the set of a remake of ‘Land of the Giants’, with truffles at least four times the size you’d expect, with some of the designs reminiscent of stuff you might find on a market stall (e.g. logs covered in chocolate sprinkles). Our hopes for quality dessert size bonbons were raised when we saw slabs of broken Valrhona kilos on the counter, but peering into the open kitchen revealed shelves stacked with bags of Callebaut. At least the production was there for all to see, which has to be a good point.
Having harangued the staff over which chocolates might have Valrhona in them and which might not, we came away with a bag full of bonbons big enough to make you feel like you were four years old again. It was probably a good time to leave anyway, as neither our questions nor photography were that well appreciated. In the end we were told the chocolate was a ‘blend’ of Valrhona and Callebaut. This may have been true for some of the chocolates, but others seemed to lack any decent after-taste and felt like they were all Callebaut. On the whole, the chocolates we tried were not bad, but unnecessarily large, with obvious, indelicate flavours. The shop was very busy, so obviously popular, but I suspect customers were being wowed by size rather than taste.
I still haven’t had a good explanation for the Australian connection with this Dutch based multi-national chain – now with seventy stores in Europe and the US. I guess it was just a funky design / marketing idea. Like Puccini, the chocolates are rather large, this time square and enough for four in each bonbon. The products were unsurprisingly much more mass-produced in style than Puccini, and the shop was more like a fast food outfit than a chocolatier. This gave a modern, sharp and fast appeal, reflected in the younger clientele.
Expectations were not high, but actually the chocolates were relatively good given their probable industrial manufacturing methods. Also I got the feeling some of the flavours were trying too hard – like coconut white chocolate marzipan (this apparently had orange as well, but I couldn’t detect any trace). This is standard high street fare, but you could do a lot worst and at least the chocolates were not too sweet.
www.australianhomemade.com (parts of this site seems to be permanently ‘under construction’)
Unlimited Delicious were easily the best of the bunch, and at last we felt as if we were in a proper chocolatier, much more in the French style than the others we seen. Again here a mixture of Valrhona and Callebaut, though with some dark chocolates made purely with Valrhona and a little more openness about which chocolate was used where. Unlimited Delicious follow the same pattern as Puccini though, with Valrhona on show in the shop, which might give you the idea they were a purely Valrhona house.
The clean flavour of the truffle cake we tried and some of the ganaches suggest a good level of care about quality and an appreciation of taste, though the one or two dark ganaches made with Callebaut didn’t impress so much. The staff quite openly told us that the milk and white bonbons used Callebaut (despite somewhat misleading bags of Jivara Lacte placed at the back of the shop behind these), so we gave these a miss.
Most interesting was the tomato and balsamic ganache, which just about worked. You might think this combination would make a filling that’s too savoury, this is not the case at all though. The sweetness of the tomato paste and balsamic if anything made this a very fruity confection; only at the very end did it seem slightly odd to have tomato in the mix. Quite sharp as well, so if your palate leans towards acid flavours, you’ll likely enjoy this. The espresso panamania was a little sweet and had a cheesy hint, but was pleasant enough and clean afterwards.
So at least our day ended with some decent chocolate and showed that while Amsterdam might not be a modern chocolate capital right now, things might be looking up if more shops like Unlimited Delicious open up soon.